This weekend I didn’t check twitter enough and when I got back, everyone was saying noam chomsky and I didn’t understand.
It took research to figure out what happened. Yes it was 1 minute of research but I wouldn’t have known how to do it 2 months ago – searching doesn’t help because the first result is always ‘checked to see why X is trending in case they died’. And it would have taken more if I’d been away for longer, because meanings compound self-referentially, becoming more inscrutable with time and use.
I’m new to twitter and not yet fluent – I’m picking up words and phrases that my younger friends use in meatspace that I never understood before because I never heard them in context. (‘Slide into DMs’ for example).
I’m still more likely to use the word memes as in richard dawkins than memes as in reddit. On twitter I think the meaning of the word is somewhere in between – ‘captioned GIF template’ half the time, but ‘virally spreading idea’ sometimes too.
Here’s what changed in my understanding of fringe speech online after a few months of twitter immersion: I knew that memes were humor. I didn’t know that they were slang.
Slang is information warfare
Iconoclasm is a word that I always thought was stupid but now that people are really toppling statues I kind of get what it means.
Slang is iconoclasm, or it can be. It’s creatively and intentionally offensive (though offense is not its only job). It hurts mainstream ears.
These days my attitude about creativity is that anything that feels remotely like art comes from a conscious and intentional place. When I read about a version of language that offends normal or elite ears, I think at minimum it’s a creative act. If someone is capable of code-switching (shifting between two modes of communication based on context), I’ll also give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re behaving intentionally.
That means if it sounds ‘bad’ it may sound bad for a reason. Sometimes ‘bad’ just means ‘different’ or ‘surprising’ – a version of a language can be an organic mixing of adjacent cultures. It’s my opinion that sometimes the goal is to deny and reject hostile mainstream culture.
Slang is also camouflage, or code; it lets you speak covertly in public even when outsiders are listening. See, for example, Polari, a slang or ‘cant’ used by various groups in various centuries to keep their private business private.
Stretching definitions here, the computer vision camo that they print on T-shirts is slang – it combines garish style, political statement, and theoretical invisibility to mainstream surveillance. (Theoretical because does dazzle makeup really still fool software?).
For outsiders, memes are hard to ‘look up’ or search. Their meanings shift quickly, meaning that you can only keep up by being an insider. The reliance on images makes them harder to index. And they’re introduced in the context of other insider language, which makes it hard to learn one just by seeing it used.
Before I was a twitter user, whenever a web search ended with knowyourmeme my eyes turned off; I didn’t want to read a history of meaning changes for a ‘cursed’ sonic the hedgehog drawing to understand someone’s one-liner. (‘cursed’ as used online is another new word for me). KYM didn’t feel like a dictionary and so my brain turned off. It’s like semantic countershading.
I’m interested in the study of ‘language shifts’, the way that natural languages evolve and are replaced through gradual trends and sudden shocks.
The largest body of work here is on Proto-Indo-European, the hypothetical ancestor language of some indian and european language families. This research began as scholarly hunches in the 1500s and blossomed into dictionaries and concordia by the early 1800s. Grimm’s law (yup like the show) identified patterns in the sound shifts between the languages, and that allowed the next generation of philologists to begin reconstructing PIE’s original form.
We think the spread of PIE was driven by invading / migrating elites. Slang is typically the opposite; it’s a language shift created as a response to being driven underground.
Swearwords in english probably aren’t slang, but are comparable in that they belonged to a subgroup whom the minority deemed impolite. The george carlin list of words you can’t say on TV comes from a history of invasion – saxon words for important domestic and economic activities, which became impolite at the dinner table of the invading normans.
The reason I took you on this ride is that I want to bring up a subject very close to my heart, slack custom emoji. Custom emoji are the best thing about slack. They also bear all the telltale attributes of memes and experience rapid language shift.
Using one event to represent all similar events (L-pocalypse -> apocalypse), using a person’s face to represent a situation (based on what the person was saying when they took his photo), using homonyms and rhymes to reuse an existing emoji for a new purpose, creating representations for things based on what’s in the news (‘canadian flag’ for ‘weed’).
Custom emoji sets demonstrate a lot of the patterns by which words evolve in spoken languages. My point in bringing this up is that successful social networks enable playful uses of language. That (1) creates a sunk cost that incentivizes insiders to stay, (2) strengthens communities against outside disruption and (3) probably improves communication.
I hope someone writes a PhD about this.
Will future social leave room for slang?
8chan is chaotic and, sometimes, dangerous (I suspect, never having used it). Twitter has a dirty underbelly (I suspect, having used it but seen only the good side).
My sense of twitter is that highly public speech by high-reputation experts / celebs is coexisting with semipublic coded speech.
I read this bellingcat post about shitposting, another word that I heard but didn’t understand before this year. (Trigger warning: it details terrorist recruitment and is disturbing). The article describes shitposting as a form of noise that distracts and derails outsiders. It rejects not arguments but argument, rejecting the public square as a place for debate, replacing debate with pollution.
The subject of the article is believed to be one of the people arrested for the Christchurch shootings in New Zealand. He left behind a manifesto. Bellingcat claims shitpost-style speech in his docs tries to “distract attention from his more honest points and draw the attention of his real audience”. This is powerful because you can recruit in the open without getting caught planning a crime.
Anyone building a social platform has to find balance on this issue. Do you accommodate pseudonymous pollution collectives, do you build for just high-reputation experts, or do you need to build for both?
Terrorists should be actively investigated and controlled so we can intervene between threat + violence, but policing all coded language is (1) difficult and (2) has bad collateral effects on everyone with a cause or a subculture.
My hunch is healthy networks need both – new users transition in pseudonymously and that below the blue checkmark mafia are hierarchies of people who, from above, seem like useful trolls, and looking up from below seem like experts in their own right. But I don’t have an answer, other than to be fascinated by the role of coded language online and horrified by its abuse.